This Father’s Day, let’s insist on a richer, more nuanced conversation about fatherhood, because the truth about the avenues to prosperity and the durability of American families is complex. It’s true that on average, children do best in stable homes with two loving adults. Families headed by two adults tend to have more time and income to dedicate to child-rearing than families headed by only one adult. Twice as many parents to read bedtime stories, sing lullabies and patch scraped knees. Two parents can also pool their financial resources to provide greater insurance against job loss and other economic shocks that can rock a family.
But it’s also true that rising income inequality is a leading cause of family instability and the growth of single-parent homes, which conservatives should acknowledge as well. In research documenting marriage trends going back to 1880, family scholar Andrew Cherlin found that class gaps in marriage rates generally widen when income inequality grows.
Financial strain is one of the leading causes of divorce, and affects decisions about whether and when to marry or have children in the first place. And in communities of color in particular, an unequal justice system has left millions of men incarcerated or with criminal records that undermine their ability to be breadwinners for their families.
A stale conversation — robbed of the context of a legacy of discrimination and disinvestment, an economy that leaves millions of people on the margins and a broken criminal justice system — is designed to collectively absolve politicians from proactively addressing unjust policies, enacted over generations, and instead piles blame on the very families who’ve been most affected. There’s a constructive conversation to be had between progressives and conservatives on these issues, but it can’t start with victim-blaming. Rather, we should strive for consensus grounded in the evidence and lived experience of families who’ve felt the impact of economic and cultural changes over the past 50 years.
Our research provides the basis for a new consensus on the benefits to children of what we call the “three S’s” of family policy: structure, stability and strength. Structure is important—children do better, on average, when they are raised by two parents, both in households with different-sex and same-sex partners. But that alone isn’t determinative. Stability of the family unit and strength of the parents’ relationship with each other and their children are also fundamental. Not surprisingly, economic insecurity is one of the major factors undermining family life, with growing differences by socioeconomic class on indicators relating to all three S’s.
So when it comes to the three S’s, what can conservatives and progressives agree on? Start by boosting take-home pay for workers with fewer years of formal education — a growing number of prominent conservatives are joining progressives in supporting expansion of the earned income tax credit for workers without dependent children.
There’s support across the ideological spectrum for addressing marriage penalties in our tax and benefit programs. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, has failed at serving married and partnered families, even though one of its stated aims is to support the “maintenance of two-parent families.” (It has failed low-income single parents, as well. While TANF serves many more single parents than coupled parents, the overwhelming majority of low-income single parents don’t receive TANF benefits, either.)
About 4.5 million married parents with children have incomes below the poverty line. Yet only about 3 percent of these parents get help from TANF to make ends meet while searching for work or addressing other family challenges. Because financial stress and unemployment contribute to family instability, TANF ought to be there for more of these kids before their parents divorce or separate, and be more available to all families.
Bipartisan momentum is also building behind proposals to reform our broken criminal justice system, to avoid unnecessarily separating families and burdening men and women with criminal records that wind up as barriers to the economic security that bolsters family life.
And progressives agree that we should address non-economic factors. Conservatives like Brad Wilcox are right to call on religious, civic and other leaders to help forge a “new model of masculinity that encompasses not just breadwinning but also fatherhood and civic engagement in ways that are attractive to … working-class men.”
It’s not often entrenched sides in Washington rethink long-held beliefs and find common ground — so let’s not move backwards now. If we truly value families, then let’s address the causes of family instability instead of taking the easy way out by blaming single mothers or bemoaning absent fathers.
This Father’s Day, let’s call on policymakers to value families above partisan politics and work to build on the emerging consensus that both an economic and a social agenda are needed to strengthen American family life.